While founders embark on the journey of launching a company with an abundance of optimism it may be the case that their relationship does not last as long as the company, leading to the question of how to handle a founder leaving the company? This situation goes one of two ways: (1) the company and its founders entered into agreements that address this situation and the process set forth in these agreements is followed; or (2) no agreements are in place and the company and founder are left to try and work out a resolution (difficult if the departure was not amicable).
In this post we will detail two agreements to put in place early-on in a company’s life that could ease a founder’s departure:
1. Reverse Vesting Agreement. A reverse vesting agreement subjects a founder’s shares to repurchase by the company if the founder leaves/is fired from the company within a particular period of time. Each time shares “vest”, meaning that a particular period of time has elapsed and a certain number of shares cease to be subject to the company’s repurchase right. Typical terms are described as “4 years with a 1 year cliff”. This means that the agreement lasts for 4 years and that 1/4 of the shares vest after 1 year and are no-longer subject to the company’s repurchase right. After the cliff, shares typically vest in monthly or quarterly instalments for the remaining 3 years. The repurchase price is a nominal amount, typically the amount the founder paid for the shares upon incorporation (ex. $0.00001/share).
BENEFITS: If the founder leaves within the vesting period, the company can exercise its repurchase right and repurchase those unvested shares. This is especially useful if a founder leaves early, such as within the first year and allowing the company to repurchase all the founder’s shares. Without this agreement, a founder could leave the company within the first year yet retain all their shares.
COMMON MISTAKES: (1) Too short of a term, for example 2 year vesting term when the founder is needed for at least 3 years in order to complete the product; and (2) setting the repurchase price too high resulting in shares that are too expensive for an early-stage company to repurchase.
2. Shareholders Agreement. A Shareholders Agreement addresses the relationship among the shareholders and the company and may often contain clauses addressing founders specifically. Relevant to a founder’s departure, the Shareholders Agreement may contain a section permitting the company and/or the shareholders (or maybe the other founders) to repurchase the departing founder’s shares. The Shareholders Agreement would contain a mechanism for valuing the shares and a process for completing the repurchase. Additionally, even if the shares were not purchased or no purchase mechanism exists, it may contain a voting trust serving to transfer the votes held by the founder’s shares to a company designee.
BENEFITS: By including a repurchase mechanism, the Shareholders Agreement can kick-in following expiration of a Reverse Vesting Agreement, providing a way to easily repurchase shares of a departing founder once that agreement has expired. Additionally, the voting trust ensures that the founder receives the financial benefit in the future of any shares they retain but by transferring the votes associated with those shares to a company designee it ensures that only people actively involved in the company can vote on company matters.
COMMON MISTAKES: (1) Drafting the Shareholders Agreement to only apply to initial shareholders and not containing provisions whereby the agreement automatically applies to new shareholders; and (2) not creating a clear process for valuing shares and a process for resolving any dispute over share value.
In summary, if you plan for shareholder problems at the start you will be well equipped should those problems arise in the future. While founders may not want to dwell on a divorce when they are optimistic about the future they will be glad they did if things turn for the worse down the road.